Effects of the First Opium War on Foreign Relationship in Qing Dynasty China


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Effects of the First Opium War on Foreign Relationship in Qing Dynasty China

Before the first opium war, China had thrived economically and was looking forward to an even better future. China was isolationist in nature and did not trade with foreign countries. This nature of China therefore could not to fulfill England’s desire of trade with them. However, England looked for trade goods that would appeal to the Chinese, and so started exporting opium to China. However, China got into a conflict with England over opium trade, as they wished England to stop opium exportation to China due to its negative influence opium had in China. The British did not comply and this led to the first opium war between China and Britain. The first opium war had negative effect on Anglo-Chinese relationship in regard to the treaties signed afterwards, which favored the British and not the Chinese, and led to seceding of China’s Hong Kong island to the United Kingdom, hence leaving the Qing Dynasty in disgrace.

As Melancon notes, this first opium war was responsible for the changes in Anglo-Chinese relationship experienced after the war and even today (1). The British benefited more from this war, as opposed to the Chinese. England had thought that opium was the most appropriate tool for balancing the trade deficit between them and China (Jacques 536). The authorities in China later objected to opium trade, but this did not stop England. The main event which aggravated the first opium war was when in 1839, Lin Zexu, the Canton governor, destroyed opium amounting to 20,283 chests after forcing the British merchants to forfeit it, at Canton port. Later, British sailors murdered a Chinese citizen, hence building up tension between these two countries. The Queen then commanded British troops to take over Hong Kong. The first confrontation between the Chinese and British troops happened while the Chinese tried to prevent the British form entering Hong Kong. The British troops conquered the Chinese, killing many of them, and took over Shanghai, Guangdong, Chinese forts, as well as parts of the Canton city. This forced the Qing Dynasty to surrender to the British and the end of this war was concluded by signing the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 (Perdue 29).

By signing the treaty of Nanjing, the Chinese lost many rights of their sovereign state. In this treaty, the British were accorded five Chinese port cities, including all the trading rights. This led to the end of the Imperial monopolization of all foreign trade. The opening of foreign ships and the ports of Amoy, Canton, Fuzhou, Shanghai, and Ningbo opened China to foreign trade, thus ending their isolationist principles. In this treaty, China was also forced to hand over the Island of Hong Kong to the British for on a 99 years lease, which ended in 1997. This treaty also made china pay the British for the losses incurred during the war. China paid 6 million for the opium they destroyed, 12 million to cater for the cost of the war, and 3 million to the British merchants to cover the debts they owed them. All this amounted to 21 million, payable to the British in silver. This weakened China’s economy, considering the losses they had already suffered during the war (Carroll 9).

One of the conditions in the Nanjing Treaty was that the laws of their countries and not the laws of China would rule the foreigners in China. This was exploitative to China and denied use of its rule of law over all the inhabitants in the country. The Nanjing treaty therefore left the Chinese helpless and overruled by the British and other foreigners. This treaty robbed the Chinese of their independence and eventually led to the downfall of the Qing dynasty. China was now dominated by foreign states, and this destroyed the legitimate rule of a central government in China. For instance, even after the war, opium was still considered illegal by the Chinese authorities, however, the British continued with this trade in China, yet China could take no action to stop this, as the treaty had tied them down. This unfair treatment of China led to immense changes in the way China interacted with foreigners. This contributed to China’s economic downfall.

The first opium war weakened the Qing dynasty and less effective in the eyes of many nations. The opium trade increased after the war, and this resulted in more problems for the Qing Dynasty. Together with corruption and humiliation by the British, the Qing Dynasty earned a bad reputation, and was perceived negatively by its citizens and the international community (Ong 78). The international community developed a stereotype about the Chinese, who were regarded as opium addicts. This stereotype lasted up to the 20th century. This therefore led to Chinese immigrants in foreign countries to be viewed in a negative light in relation to opium. This frailty of the Qing dynasty later resulted in the Taiping rebellion, which started in 1850. This war also laid a foundation for a later unequal treaty between the United States and China in 1844. This treaty was in many ways similar to the Treaty of Nanjing. These subsequent rebellions negatively affected the future of China (Elleman.35-36).

Generally, the first opium war between the Chinese and the British is considered devastating to the Chinese. However, a counterargument could be that this war was a blessing in disguise to the Chinese as it exposed them to western technology and modernity essential for economic development. Before the first opium war, China was highly isolationist and did not trade with other countries. However, the opium war opened it up to trading with other countries. This happened when the British took over its port cities, which were initially closed to international trade, and opened them up for trade.

Through the first opium war, China was forced to lay off its out-dated values, superstitions, and traditions and embraced elements of modernity. Chinese exposure with the West through the war and post-war period was beneficial to them as they now experienced new technology, prosperity, exposure to new people, and better trade, all this was through the efforts of the British. If there were no opium wars, it is more likely that China would still be under their imperialist and isolationist ideologies, which are irrational and illogical in the contemporary world (Melancon 56). Therefore, the conquering of China by Western powers was instrumental in bringing about ideological transformations in China, collapsing the old, corrupt Qing Dynasty, and laying the foundation for the birth of a modern republic of China, as witnessed in the 20th Century.

This counterargument does not however give substantial reasons as to why the first opium war should be justified as beneficial to China. Before the opium war, China was stable both economically and socially, except for technology similar to the Western. Contact with the British ended all their hard-earned stability and plunged them into some kind of inferiority and humiliation. Ideologies in states always change, and it is wrong to assume that this was the best way for China’s isolationism and imperialism to end. China would still have experienced social and cultural change naturally, which would bring to an end their irrational ideologies. As a fact, most countries were once savages, who have today advanced technologically. However, technological advancement for them did not necessarily come because of war, exploitation, and national humiliation. The British and opium war were therefore distractors that removed China from its natural course of national progress and ruined, and devastated the Chinese through cruel treaties.

This subject is significant to the contemporary Chinese populations and the international communities, as it helps in the understanding of the relations between China and Britain today. With the knowledge of these historic events between China and Britain, it is possible for one to observe, analyze, and interpret the contemporary China-Britain relations. In addition, this historical event sheds light on how China developed to its current state. Most people today do not know the unfolding of this historical event except that it devastated the Chinese. However, this crucial and nation-changing event was important in shaping the present China.

Conclusively, the first opium war had detrimental effects on China, making it a fair game for foreign countries, even though it laid a foundation for the future prosperity of the country. The relationship between China and Britain was shattered, as characterized by great tension after this war. This war resulted in further wars and rebellions in China, leading to further devastation of China. However, China managed to pull through. With change in ideology and embracing of modernity, China beat the odds and emerged as a stronger republic in the 21st Century.


Works Cited

Carroll, John.” A Concise History of Hong Kong.” London: Rowman & Littlefield. 2007.

Elleman, Bruce. “Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795-1989.” New Jersey: Routledge. 2001.

Jacques, Gernet. “A History of Chinese Civilization.” Trans, J. R. Foster, Charles Hartman.

London: Cambridge University Press. 1996.

Melancon, Genn. “Britain’s China Policy and the Opium Crisis: Balancing Drugs, Violence, and

National Honor 1833-1840.” London: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2003.

Ong, Siew. China Condensed 5000 Years of History & Culture. New York: Marshall Cavendish,


Perdue, Peter. “The first opium war: The anglo-chinese war of 1839-1842.” New York:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 2010.


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